Today, I’m delighted to be interviewing top-selling indie author, Mel Sherratt. Mel has been a self-described “meddler of words” ever since she can remember. After winning her first writing competition at the age of eleven, she has rarely been without a pen in her hand or her nose in a book. Since successfully self-publishing Taunting the Dead and seeing it soar to the rank of number one best-selling police procedural in the Amazon Kindle store in 2012, Mel has gone on to publish three more books in the critically- acclaimed The Estate Series. Mel has also written feature articles for The Guardian, the Writers’ and Artists’ website, and Writers’ Forum Magazine, to name just a few, and regularly speaks at conferences and events. She lives in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, with her husband and her terrier, Dexter (named after the TV serial killer, with some help from her Twitter fans), and makes liberal use of her hometown as a backdrop for her writing.
Jane: Welcome, Mel. I’m a huge fan of photography. Can I say how much I love the picture you have used on your website of a woman spying out of what might be a bird hide or a letter box. I see that it’s been taken from your latest book cover for Somewhere to Hide, but to me, it also says so much about how authors observe the world. Was that deliberate?
Mel: Thanks, Jane. The photo is a smaller shot of a woman looking out of a window from behind a blind. It wasn’t a conscious thing – just something that I used to hinge the title to. Somewhere to Hide was the first book of The Estate Series and I wanted similar photos to represent each book and its themes. The series is about women in jeopardy. I used the photograph on my website because lots of people commented on its eeriness, although I might be changing that soon as I’m having the site revamped. I do think, however, that it suits my writing perfectly – emotional and gritty, scary but with a little bit of hope.
Jane: You have mentioned The Estate Series. As an author, why embark on a series?
I never intended it to be a series. I just kept writing book after book while I was trying to get a book deal. When Taunting the Dead did well, I then changed them slightly so they were connected. All three books can be read in any order as each are about different characters, but I take one or two smaller characters from the previous book and give them their own space in the next. Readers tend to enjoy this. I have plans for a couple more, if I get time to write them. I always planned on stopping at five.
Jane: Now, to me, that sounds more interesting than a traditional series. I am often asked when I am going to give my supporting characters books of their own.
You’re obviously a huge cheerleader for self-publishing and you have an enviable sales record. With the number of self-published books increasing by 59% last year alone, how do you ensure that it is easy for readers to discover you and, when they do, that they will pick one of your novels?
Mel: I wouldn’t say I’m a huge cheerleader for self-publishing – I just wanted to get my own words out there. I self-published because I tried to get a book deal for twelve years without success and then along came the Kindle, giving me an opportunity to test my stories on an audience. Luckily it worked for me. I do think it’s important for a writer to decide for themselves what is the best step, though – everyone’s reasons are personal to them.
Discovery is a good topic to talk about. Before I published my first novel, Taunting the Dead, I had a blog for four years that I posted on several times a week. Through this, people got to know me and my writing style. Once I had Taunting the Dead out, I then brought out three books in The Estate Series in quick succession, using Facebook, Twitter, and my blog to communicate with readers, and then I guess it must have been word of mouth. I take a lot of time replying to readers and writers who contact me. It’s very important to me to thank people for getting in touch. I also find it incredibly satisfying, overwhelming at times when someone says they’ve read and enjoyed all of my books.
Jane: Even with only one release as an eBook, you managed to attract some celebrity fans, Ian Rankin, being one example. That must have been such a thrill. How did that come about?
Mel: I’d followed Ian on Twitter for a while and one afternoon, when Taunting the Dead hit the top three overall UK Kindle chart, he sent me a message to say he had downloaded it and was enjoying it so far. I was shocked, thrilled and scared all at the same time – the man is a legend! Since then, I’ve met him at crime writing festivals several times and found him incredibly supportive. At the end of last year, he mentioned me in an article, Desert Island Books, and my whole Twitter feed went mad.
Jane: Having had your work initially rejected by literary agents, the agent with whom you signed contacted you via your website. If that doesn’t demonstrate the importance of a strong on-line presence, I don’t know what does! How has having an agent on board changed the way you operate?
Mel: It’s been great! I now have a business partner, someone with the same energy as me and someone who I can turn to for advice. She has my best interests at heart and is my confidante. I trust her wholeheartedly. My agent also looks after the selling side for me now, leaving me more time to get the words down. I often say there is a lot of self in self-publishing, especially marketing the books to keep them visible, which I do through social media – blog posts and interviews such as this one.
Jane: You describe yourself as a writer of ‘murder and mayhem.’ Have you ever experimented with other genres?
Mel: I think I’ve gone through a fair few genres to get to where I am today. I started off writing women’s fiction under a pen name. Then I wrote The Estate Series novels, a cross between crime thrillers and women’s fiction. Next came Taunting the Dead, a police procedural with a psychological feel to it and then my new one, Watching over You, out in January, is a psychological thriller. For some reason, my writing became darker and darker. Now with Watching over You, I feel that I have a mixture of everything I have written so far. There’s a bit of romance, and a fast-paced thriller with an erotic feel to it, plus lots of emotion.
Jane: Although you write within a specific genre, you cover a very diverse range of subject matter. Where do you get your inspiration from?
Mel: Most ideas come from a news bulletin or a newspaper article or something that I see online. I then think of characters and twists to fit those storylines. I often get ideas from songs too – either titles or lyrics can take me off in a daydream. I choose gritty subjects because sometimes it’s just circumstances that dictate how lives turn out.
Jane: You mention that your writing is gritty – in fact it has been described as ‘hard as nails.’ How do you decide what detail to include and what is better left to the reader’s imagination?
Mel: That’s a tricky question to answer because I think everyone reads a book differently so will take away different things. For instance, I’ve recently had two reviews for books in The Estate Series. One said it was nothing like the TV series Shameless and another said it was too much like the TV series Shameless. I’m not sure who mentioned Shameless in the first instance – but it wasn’t me. But I do choose hard-hitting subjects because I believe there is always hope. No matter how hard someone knocks you to the ground, and no matter how long it takes to get up again, eventually there will be someone there to help you. I won’t stop if something shocks. It’s there in the story for a reason.
Jane: I’ve just read an interview in which you said that a novel will take you 4 – 6 months from start to finish. That’s remarkably fast! Does that include research and the time it takes for an idea to germinate? Do you take breaks between writing?
Mel: Yes, I do like to write quickly. I can’t do it any other way than all or nothing. But I’m not one of the writers who perfects everything before moving on. I write dirty first drafts and then add just as much plotting and planning to a second draft to get a decent story. A third draft irons out enough problems before I feel confident in sharing it with my agent and beta readers.
I always plan for about a month beforehand though, so I have a beginning, middle and always an end, with lots of sub-plots to work in as I go along. I write long hours when I’m drafting or editing so it may sound like a little amount of time but it will be all day every day for a few weeks at a time, evenings too, until I’m done. For example, I had 15k words written in first draft of Watching over You when I signed with my agent mid-December last year and the finished script went out on submission at London Book Fair in April this year. I think between us we did around six drafts and edits on it – I do the same when I’m self-publishing too.
Jane: Regardless of genre, what are the elements that you think make a great novel?
Mel: For me, it’s all about memorable characters.
Jane: We both heard Joanna Penn speak at the Writers’ & Artists’ Self-Publishing conference recently and she said that ‘Writing is about you; Marketing is about the reader.’ Unlike many authors, you don’t have the benefit of a background in journalism or PR. How easy do you find it to make the necessary switch in mind-set from author to promoter?
Mel: I don’t market myself – I only write, which sounds silly, I know. But with having no marketing background, I just blogged. I also wrote book reviews and interviewed other authors, so there was always content of some sort on my blog. Without knowing, I was building an audience, so when it came time for me to put my books out, I was quite well known. Blogging is a great discipline for a writer. You have to keep at it to bring people back. So I still do one or two guest posts for other people per week, about my journey now.
Jane: I know that your books are available as eBooks. What was your experience of publishing in that format? And do you prefer eBooks or ‘tree books’?
Mel: I found it quite easy once I’d learned how to do one. The first one tried my patience a little but afterwards it became easier and easier. I don’t prefer either eBooks or print – I find I alternate between the two. I think both will always be around. People like choice.
Jane: You have a new book out in January. Can you give us a bit more of a taster of what it’s about?
Mel: Watching over You is a raw, intense, relentless, and darkly claustrophobic psychological thriller that I hope will grab you by the back of the neck and never let you go.
Following the death of her husband and unborn child, Charley Belington sells the family home and bravely starts life over again. On moving into a new flat, she is befriended by her landlady, Ella, who seems like the perfect friend and confidante.
But, unbeknown to Charley, Ella is fighting her own dark and dirty demons as the fallout from a horrific childhood sends her spiralling down into madness-and unspeakable obsessions.
As Ella’s mind splinters, her increasingly bizarre attentions make Charley uneasy. But with every step Charley tries to take to distance herself, Ella moves in a tightening lockstep with her, closer and closer and closer…
Jane: Mel, I’m very grateful that you took time out from your writing to answer these questions and wish you all the best with the launch of Watching Over You.
If you would like to know about Mel, her website is www.writerofmurderandmayhem.com and Twitter at @writermels
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